Reasonable adjustments in the workplace for autistic people

Author: Sammy Roberts, Expert by Experience, Inclusion Gloucestershire 

According to the ‘National Autistic Society’, less than 20% of autistic people are in any form of employment. This seems to be a significant underuse of an incredible resource, but as an autistic person, I found it very hard to think about getting a job. The fear that I would be dismissed as soon as I mentioned my autism or that I would be expected to mask it, as I had spent much of my life doing, was present all the time.

I have been fortunate to work for a user-led disability organisation but, that doesn’t mean I haven’t needed to have small changes made to enable me to do my job. Small changes that don’t affect the running of the business, or the effectiveness of the service.

I, like many autistic people, measure my energy levels with spoons and for me to be able to do my job I need to make sure I can allocate my spoons in the most efficient way.


I only have so many spoons

When the project I work on recently hired a new manager, spoons were one of the first things that I told her about. Explaining to her that I worked better in the mornings, allowing time to rest in the afternoons to recharge my spoons was important. Not only am I more productive in the morning but working at this time allows me to use public transport at quieter times.

I find just being around other people quite exhausting and it can cause a lot of anxiety. Travelling in the early morning means there are fewer people around. As I start earlier, I can try and finish work before the school’s finish, so again, I can get home without busy transport, helping me to manage my spoons and not exhaust myself.


Communication really matters.

The second reasonable adjustment I needed was clear communication, and this wasn’t and isn’t without its hiccups. Without clear communication, I find that I can over think things, feeling like I have done something wrong or that I am being left out of work.

Clear communication is important for any business and things like clear times for communication, such as meetings starting on time and with agendas, as well as clear task lists help me plan my day so I’m clear on what I’m doing.


Clear instructions make a difference.

Clear instructions and understanding of my job role, as well as how it should be fulfilled has been crucial. An unexpected change in the direction of the project did cause me to become anxious as I didn’t understand those changes. Businesses can often move quickly and have competing demands with a constant need to negotiate these.

We found a way to cut through this, by having a clear task list with more regular but shorter catch up meetings. This meant communication became easier and ensured I could work independently. It might be best for an autistic employee, that they are given a specific responsibility rather than

expecting them to switch tasks and become unclear on what they’re meant to be doing.


Sensory overload

Working in an open plan office has been a struggle for me, with multiple conversations happening and phones ringing throughout the day. Lockdown helped in this respect as it has meant I was able to work from home. Now, with more flexible working in place, I tend to work from home, which allows me to regulate my sensory environment.

Being aware of a sensory environment allows an autistic employee to regulate the sensory input and not become overwhelmed by the noise, visual stimulus, and smell of the office. Being overwhelmed can lead to a significant mental health crisis.


What other reasonable adjustments might be needed?

  • Being told about changes before they are going to happen to allow for time to think about these and manage my reactions.
  • Flexible working to promote productivity at the times I am most effective.
  • Workplace passports and one-page profiles can help me to build relationships and communication with others.
  • Presentations that require me to ask questions provided in advance, so I can think about those questions and how best to respond.


6 top tips for employers

  1. Be flexible and understanding.
  2. Work with your autistic employee to get the best for both you as an employer and your employee.
  3. Ask and listen to what reasonable adjustments they might need – small manageable changes might make a difference to their effectiveness and ability to work.
  4. Use communication tools to support effective communication.
  5. Be aware of how the environment might overwhelm an autistic person, ask them how it affects them and work with them to develop a way to support them.
  6. Ask staff to do autism awareness training to promote greater understanding and enable greater support.